United States Must Prepare for Impending Climate Refugee Crisis

Climate change has and will continue to force people all over the world to leave their homes.  Climate stressors such as rising sea levels, flooding and changing rainfall patterns are increasingly making different areas of the world inhabitable. The World Bank predicts that Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could have more than 140 million people displaced by 2050.  Many of the people currently being displaced are migrating within their own countries; however, as more people are forced to leave their homes, there will be far more international movement.  

The United States is not immune from the effects of climate refugees.  After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans were forced to flee the island, most of which came to the U.S. mainland. The United States cannot pretend this problem is not imminent. However, the United States has done little to prepare for the influx of asylum-seekers.

Under current United States law, the definition of a refugee is extremely limited.  In order to be a refugee, one must be “unable or unwilling to return to […] that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” This definition of refugee completely ignores the growing levels of displacement due to environmental factors.  The term “persecution” only applies to those who are forced to leave their country due to violence by other people; and does not include the possibility of their homes becoming inhabitable because of the climate conditions.

The U.S. must be a leader in preparing the world for handling the large numbers of people who will be forced to find a new home.  The first step in that process is changing how we define the term “refugee” in U.S. law to include those who cannot return to their countries of origin due to the impacts of climate change. If we do not make this change, we will have an increase in illegal immigration and, more importantly, we will be contributing to the devastation that faces people who are already forced to leave everything behind.

Nikki Dow





Groundwater Rise: An International Problem that California Must Solve

The devastating effects of climate change are numerous, diverse, and often disrupt our best-laid plans.  One novel issue which is only now starting to get attention is groundwater rise.  When we think of sea-level rise, we often think about the ocean encroaching our coastal shores and flooding our beaches – but we forget about the waterways in the ground beneath our feet. Groundwater fills the holes and fractures in underground materials like water fills a sponge. It can be deep in the earth, or shallow and near the surface.  Along coasts, underground saltwater floats directly beneath the freshwater.  When underground saltwater rises with the rising seas, it is expected to push the groundwater up and sometimes even out of the ground.  In addition to flooding basements and impacting plumbing, this rise can also crumble roads and create extended earthquake liquefaction zones. In 2012, Hawaiian scientists discovered the earliest first-hand evidence of the phenomena already in action.

Global climate change is expected to cause at least an average one foot rise in sea levels by the end of the century, with a three foot rise in California, but it may end up being much more. A survey in one Bay Area city found local groundwater to currently be an average of six feet below the surface near the Bay edge, and often as close to the surface as only one to two feet below. Even a small rise in sea levels can have devastating effects with already shallow groundwater. The effects become even more problematic if the groundwater is contaminated by chemicals.  For those who live or work near the shore and in polluted areas, sleeping monsters are about to awake.

Potential Impacts of Sea-Level Rise (SLR) and Flooding in the San Francisco Bay Area: https://lao.ca.gov/reports/2019/4121/Fig2.png
California LAO: Preparing for Rising Seas: How the State Can Help Support Local Coastal Adaptation Efforts

When chemicals pollute soil and groundwater, the contamination may be mitigated by procedures to contain the toxins and reduce the risk to humans nearby. However, these containment procedures generally factor in the current depth of the groundwater at that time and there is usually no follow up later to assess if the mitigation is still sufficient (such as if physical circumstances changed in the area).  More than 945 EPA Superfund sites are at risk due to global climate change generally, and 330 EPA Superfund sites were found to be at risk of flooding due to only five feet of sea level rise. The California LAO recently stated, “floodwaters could penetrate both surface-level and underground tanks and force out toxic liquids, or liberate waste from pits or piles.” Though, this analysis does not even consider vapor intrusion risks as the groundwater rises closer the surface.

The issue of contaminated groundwater rise has been overlooked by city planners and decision-makers for decades, but we cannot wait any longer.  Many coastal cities across the world will be impacted by this issue.  California has an impressive history of environmental innovation and pioneering novel solutions to address global climate change. This issue should be no different — not only because the world needs a solution, but because this issue will be disastrous for Californians if we cannot get ahead of it at home.

– Ashley Gjovik

Ashley is an advocate for human rights, including healthy environments. She is currently a law student at Santa Clara University studying international public interest law and policy. 

Position: The Nature Conservancy, Senior Strategic Policy Advisor – Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (Arlington, VA/Negotiable; Deadline: rolling)

This interesting opportunity was shared with me.

A link to a posting on Linkedin.com for this position. Here is also a copy of the actual position description and related info.

Part-time Graduate Fellowship Opportunity (with me/Prof. Yang)

If you are a 2020 Santa Clara Law School grad and interested in environmental justice issues (and also haven’t found a full-time job yet), come work with me as a part-time graduate fellow. For additional details and how to apply, see below. (We would love help as soon as possible.)

Remarkable Climate Change Decision from a French Court

While there is a wealth of climate cases pending in courts across the world, success for climate activists has been very limited. Last year, in the Urgenda case, the Dutch Supreme Court affirmed an earlier lower court decision finding that the government had not done enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This French decision is apparently the first in France finding the government liable for climate harms.

Fellowship: UCLA Law Emmett Institute, Los Angeles (deadline: Jan. 26, 2021)

The Emmett Institute at UCLA Law has fellowship openings – two-year academic appointments intended to help early stage lawyers launch careers in environmental law.  This is designed for 3Ls and recent graduates.  Due date is January 26.


The US is back in the Paris Climate Agreement!


Of course, the best news today was the inauguration of President Biden. But as an added bonus, he has brought the US back into the Paris Climate Agreement with this simple acceptance of the Treaty. Since the Paris Agreement is largely binding, at least with respect to the substantive emission reduction commitments, and given that the US was only out for a little more than 2 months, it’s as if the US never left!

Now, for students of international environmental law, the next question to ask would be this: how can this simple “acceptance” of the Agreement make the US a party? Why is Senate advice and consent not necessary?

A California Water Crisis, Again

           On October 30, 2020, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the State Water Resources Control Board hosted a joint workshop for water utilities and assorted consumer advocacy groups to address water affordability and operational challenges aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. (The workshop was held pursuant to Rulemaking 17-06-024: Water Affordability During COVID-19.) Since January 2020, the number of customers behind on their water bills has steadily risen in the following months up until the time of this workshop. This has not been a surprise due to the massive unemployment caused by COVID-19.

            Unfortunately, demand and competition for water has remained undiminished, even as California continues to face rising water shortage challenges. People still need to water their lawns, flush their toilets, and grow their food. Cultural differences between northern and southern California, priority disagreements between urban and agricultural interests, and an increasingly lopsided curve of demand and supply from a growing population in an area greatly affected by climate change have exacerbated the problems. And the icing on the cake in solving these water use tensions is Article X, section 2 of the California Constitution which declares that all Californians have a constitutional right to water.

            As a result, consumers using the water system without the ability to pay for it have aggravated a financially strained system. As of 2014, California was ranked as the number 1 state in need of water infrastructure repair. With customers unable to pay their bills, how can we tackle this problem? How can a system without the ability to repair itself continue to deliver safe drinking water? As an additional layer to this quandary, there are over 100 investor-owned water utilities in the CPUC’s jurisdiction, as compared to just a handful of gas or electric utilities. With each water utility bringing its own unique and complex problems to the table, ensuring the supply of safe and affordable drinking water presents a problem far more complex than electric power distribution.

            As a short-term measure, the CPUC has imposed emergency protection for consumers to avoid disconnection due to unpaid bills. Unfortunately for many, the CPUC only oversees investor-owned utilities, and thus the CPUC measure only applies to a limited number of people in the state. Others will need to find alternative means of keeping their water on. More importantly, neither water shut-offs for delinquent customers nor emergency measures preventing disconnection due to unpaid bills address the long-terms financial challenges for water utilities with respect to maintaining an aging water infrastructure, which continues to depreciate. At this point, we must put a Band-Aid on the system and float it forward, so to speak, as we continue to discuss what equitable solutions we can offer to enforce this constitutional right for California residents.

Wesley Clark

Composting, Worms, and the Climate Crisis

Reducing food waste is one of the most important things we can do as individuals to fight the release of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the environment. The food supply chain accounts for nearly a third of worldwide GHG emissions. These gases contribute to climate change, which disproportionately burdens developing countries. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that, if the world’s food waste was a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of GHGs, behind only the U.S. and China. While the majority of food waste is the result of food rejected for imperfections even before it reaches consumers, consumer-generated food waste in the U.S. contributes 2% of yearly GHG emissions nationally. Reducing such consumer food waste can make a meaningful contribution toward the reduction of GHG emissions, including through simple measures such as buying only what is needed, using every bit of it, and accepting imperfect fruits and vegetables. However, one measure that remains underutilized is composting of food waste. Empowering consumers to engage in composting can help mitigate GHG emissions as well as produce valuable environmental co-benefits.

It is estimated that a worldwide effort to implement composting could reduce GHG emissions by 2.3 billion tons over the next 30 years. Composting converts organic waste into soil carbon, reducing the methane produced by decomposing food waste in landfills. Compost made from food waste can be put back into the agricultural system, improving soil quality and increasing productivity. Adding compost to the soil also aids in long-term carbon sequestration, because composted material provides the carbon and nutrients necessary for the soil microbes that create stabilized forms of carbon in soil. On a large scale, composting provides the interconnected benefits of increased soil health, reduction of GHGs, and improved agricultural productivity. On a smaller scale, composting makes it easier to produce food at home. Sourcing food locally can help reduce the GHG emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the agricultural supply chain.

Vermiculture, or composting with worms, provides an efficient, odorless, and space-conscious alternative to bin composting. Worm bins can easily be kept in small spaces, such as under the sink, or outdoors (with sufficient insulation). While many species of worms can be used in vermiculture, red wigglers (Eisenia foetida) and European nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis) are the most commonly used. These worms can eat a combination of food waste and paper products. Red wigglers eat about half their weight in food waste every day—that means 1,000 worms (the most common number to start with) can eat about half a pound of food per day. European nightcrawlers are commonly used in combination with red wigglers because they grow much larger and feed in the lower layers of the bin. As they eat, composting worms excrete castings, a nutrient-rich humus that can be used as a safe, organic fertilizer. Worm casting fertilizer is especially valuable because it contains beneficial soil microbes, has a neutral pH, and, unlike other fertilizers, will not burn plants because its nitrogen is released slowly. Vermicompost has also been shown to reduce plant disease—beneficial microbes from worm castings can colonize the surface of a seed, protecting it from infection. Using compost and worm castings as natural fertilizers also provides an opportunity to reduce water pollution and greenhouse gas production. Excess fertilizer pollutes waterways and can be converted by microbes to nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Bin composting can be time-consuming, and takes up more space and effort than many can dedicate to it. However, vermicomposting is a concrete step that individuals can use to take on climate change, especially if they feel helpless in the face of the climate crisis and would like to take responsibility for their food waste. It is easy, fun, and can be done almost anywhere. I began worm farming in July, and already have a colony that consumes the weekly waste of a family that shops in bulk at Costco. While the benefits worm castings have provided to my garden are hard to measure, my anecdotal evidence is that there was an explosion of growth in the weeks following the first introduction of vermicompost. My worms keep pounds of food scraps and paper products from landfills monthly, and, as the colony grows, they will eat more.

As the climate crisis worsens, contributing to droughts and food shortages, we should take advantage of every opportunity to reduce GHGs and increase agricultural efficiency. Municipal governments should reduce GHG emissions from food waste by incorporating vermicompost into waste removal. Governments should also provide vermicompost education to citizens, like this instructional video from the City of Sydney. Governments could also encourage vermicomposting with tax incentives for restaurants and grocery stores, which are perfect candidates for vermicomposting because of their high volume of organic waste. Vermicomposting is just one of the ways in which we can reduce waste, increase the availability of locally grown food, and take responsibility for our emissions in high-income countries.

Katherine Pond